False fears about anti-Muslim bias have distorted the debate over the proposal for an Islamic center near Ground Zero.
On August 25, 2010, a New York City cabdriver was slashed and stabbed by a drunken passenger who allegedly accompanied his assault with anti-Muslim remarks. The driver, Ahmed H. Sharif, a native of Bangladesh, survived the attack, and the accused assailant was quickly arrested and faces a stiff prison sentence. Attacks on New York cabdrivers are not unheard of, but this incident quickly assumed the nature of a symbol of American intolerance for Muslims because of the contentious national debate over plans to build an Islamic community center two blocks from Ground Zero—the site of the former World Trade Center destroyed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Polls consistently showed that the majority of New Yorkers and Americans thought the placing of the planned 13-story Islamic center and mosque on the site of a building that was among those devastated by debris from the 9/11 assault on the towers was, at best, insensitive and, at worst, an affront to the victims. But after months of debate, much of the public discussion about the topic had by the time of the attack on Mr. Sharif come to be centered on a different question altogether: the peril faced by American Muslims.
Indeed, many in America’s political and media elite had come to characterize virtually any opposition to the planned Islamic center, no matter how finely nuanced and devoid of prejudice against Islam, as more a product of bigotry than concern about the propriety of such a scheme. In a speech given with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop, the city’s mayor,Michael Bloomberg, proclaimed that nothing less than the principle of religious liberty was at stake. Later he would say that all critics of the so-called Cordoba Initiative (a name that was quickly changed to the more neutral Park51 from one that invoked the era of Muslim rule in Spain) “should be ashamed of themselves” and that any compromise about the site of the project was out of the question, since to oppose the presence of a mosque in the shadow of Ground Zero was a form of bigotry that must be defeated at all costs. The cover of Time asked, “Does America Have a Muslim Problem?” The New York cabbie attack was seen as the culmination of weeks of contention that was concrete proof that it does.
How had the debate over this project turned from one about what seemed to many Americans an ill-considered provocation into one about the victimization of Muslims? The answer lies in the formation of a narrative about the aftermath of 9/11 that has sought to establish as fact that a massive backlash against all Muslims took place in the wake of the attacks. This idea, promoted largely by American Islamic and Arab groups whose own bona fides as opponents of terrorism is questionable, holds that a strain of Islamophobia has seized hold of the country in the past nine years. As Time put it: “to be a Muslim in America now is to endure slings and arrows against your faith—not just in the schoolyard and the office but also outside your place of worship and in the public square, where some of the country’s most powerful mainstream religious and political leaders unthinkingly (or worse, deliberately) conflate Islam with terrorism and savagery.” If one were to accept this statement as true, then it was possible to believe that all those who questioned the Ground Zero project, no matter what their avowed motives, were fellow travelers of an invidious movement whose purpose was to delegitimize Islam and to harass its believers.
But the problem with this narrative is that it is false. While incidents of anti-Muslim or anti-Arab discrimination or violence have taken place, any attempt to portray such acts as representative of American attitudes toward Muslims is entirely unfounded. It would be far closer to the truth to characterize post-9/11 America—from the statements and policies enacted by its leaders to much of the content of the mainstream media—as having been dedicated to a great degree to safeguarding American Muslims from such discrimination.
Despite the searing impact of the 9/11 attacks on the national consciousness, rather than feeding hatred of those identified as having a connection with the enemy, as is historically the case with virtually any country at war, American popular culture has largely avoided the use of Arabs and Muslims as stereotypical villains in films and television shows since 2001. Governmental action against suspected terrorists and those who fund such activities has been narrowly cast: despite the nation’s post-9/11 emphasis on security, racial profiling of young Muslim males, which experience shows are the most likely terror suspects, has been banned. Though stories of Muslims being subjected to unfair questioning at airports are legion—guilty only of “flying while Muslim”—security procedures designed to avoid targeting Muslims have made it just as likely for anyone, even those who are the least likely to be possible terrorists, to be harassed by security personnel.
Starting with President George W. Bush in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Americans have been incessantly lectured by their leaders to the effect that Islam is a “religion of peace” and that the overwhelming majority of Muslims don’t support anti-American terrorism. This has been repeated on both national and local levels after every subsequent instance of Muslim-based terror against Americans. The FBI has devoted significant resources to reaching out to Muslims, thereby securing their cooperation in investigations of terrorists and also reassuring them of the government’s goodwill and disinclination to view all adherents of Islam as in any way responsible for the actions of terrorists. Indeed, every time such a crime was committed or plot uncovered in the United States, as several were in just the past two years, the reflex of nearly all political, religious, and media figures is first to warn the public against tarring all Muslims with the brush of terrorism before exploring the possibility that some form of Islam might have inspired the crime—if the latter is addressed at all.
Even more to the point, though largely isolated incidents of anti-Muslim violence such as the New York cabbie attack are deplorable, there is no empirical evidence that there has been anything like a surge of violence against Muslims since 9/11 or that Muslims or Arabs have been singled out for more bias attacks than any other religious or ethnic group. FBI hate-crime statistics compiled in the years since 9/11 flatly contradict the thesis that Muslims have suffered disproportionately from such attacks. In 2000, the FBI recorded 28 instances of anti-Islamic hate crimes. That went up considerably to 554 in 2001, the year of 9/11, but then went down in 2002 to 170. That number remained relatively stable throughout the decade. The total for 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available, was 105 reported attacks motivated by anti-Islamic bias. Meanwhile, in every year from 2000 to 2008, the number of hate crimes reported against Jews far outnumbered those against Muslims. Even in 2001, when anti-Islamic violence peaked, more than twice as many crimes were motivated by anti-Semitism than those rooted in anti-Muslim sentiment. In 2008, there were 1,013 incidents of anti-Jewish crime, a total that comprised nearly two-thirds of all reported religion-based incidents and more than eight times as many as against Muslims.
Those who purport to represent the interests of American Muslims may dispute these figures as underestimating the number of crimes against their community because of reluctance on the part of minorities to cooperate with authorities and report crimes. But even if one believes that the true figures may be higher, the facts make it clear that there has been no wave of anti-Muslim bias.
The comparison to anti-Jewish hate crimes is also instructive. Though it is difficult to estimate the exact number of Muslims in America, Islamic groups are prone to claim that there are approximately 6 million adherents in the United States, a round number that matches the rough estimate for the number of Jews. But even if the number of American Muslims is smaller than the population of American Jews, how is it possible to claim that the nation is racked by Islamophobic violence when it is generally acknowledged that the far greater instances of anti-Jewish attacks do not justify a conclusion that the United States is boiling over with anti-Semitism?
Indeed, the most remarkable aspect of the post-9/11 reaction may well be the general absence of discrimination or violence against Muslims. Even in the first days after the attacks, when both the American people and its government awakened to the realization that a terror network of Islamists considered itself at war with the United States, the impulse to characterize this fight as a conflict against Islam per se has been consistently rejected.
Though some, such as Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the driving force behind the Ground Zero project, have rationalized the attraction of Muslims to anti-American violence by claiming that “the United States has more Muslim blood on its hands than al-Qaeda has on its hands of innocent Muslims,” American policy has never strayed from the concept that the war on terror was never one against Islam but against Muslims who had distorted their religion and were, in fact, more likely to target more moderate co-religionists than Americans. Indeed, with more than a billion Muslims and the need for help from Muslim nations and the foes of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Iraq and Afghanistan, how could America’s stance be any different? Despite the desire of some to demonize U.S. military action in the Middle East as a war on Islam, the number of Muslims who have been liberated from oppressive regimes by virtue of the power of the U.S. military is astonishing—more than 45 million in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Why then are Muslim groups and their friends in the mainstream media so intent on claiming that Islamophobia is running amok in the land? A leading factor is that the best-known American Muslim organizations were largely founded on this notion that America is a foe of Islam. Perhaps the most prominent such group, the Council on American-Islamic Affairs (CAIR), was created in the early 1990s as the political and public-relations arm of the Holy Land Foundation, an Islamic charity whose purpose was to raise funds in the United States to benefit the Hamas terrorist organization. Though the Holy Land Foundation was eventually shut down by the Treasury Department and prosecuted in federal court (during the course of which records documenting CAIR’s Hamas ties were revealed and it was named an unindicted co-conspirator), CAIR has expanded its reach. It has sprouted chapters around the country; gained access at times to Congress, the Department of Justice, and the White House; and its leaders have become frequent talking heads on television.
CAIR’s political agenda has been dedicated to expressing criticism of the alliance between the United States and Israel while also opposing American efforts to restrain radical Islamic regimes such as Iran. But CAIR has also, in conjunction with other groups, such as the American Muslim Council and the Anti-Arab Discrimination Committee, pursued a parallel agenda of portraying American Muslims as besieged by a tide of prejudice, discrimination, and violence. Its arguments are couched in the sociological jargon of anti-bias advocacy in large measure because there is, as the FBI hate-crimes statistics show, little except the “anecdotal evidence” cited by Time to back up their claims.
In this manner, such groups have entrenched themselves as the voice of American Muslims—even though it is arguable that the majority of this population, composed for the most part of hard-working immigrants, are more interested in gaining a piece of the traditional American dream than rationalizing the behavior of Hamas, Hezbollah, or Iran. By doing so, these groups have promulgated a perspective that seeks to blur the line between radical Islamists and the rest of the Muslim world. From this frame of reference, one that has been increasingly accepted by liberals in the media, any critic of Islamism as well as groups like CAIR may be smeared as an anti-Muslim racist who does not deserve a hearing—a factor that played a significant role in the attempt to bulldoze those questioning the Park51 project.
The effort to marginalize justified criticism of Islamism has gone hand in hand with the gradual acceptance of the myth of the post-9/11 backlash. The success of this campaign about Muslim victimization is made plain by a September 2009 survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. This poll found that 58 percent of Americans believed that Muslims are subject to “a lot of discrimination,” far more than say the same about Jews, evangelical Christians, or Mormons—despite empirical evidence that says otherwise. With the notion of Muslim victimhood—a prized status in America’s contemporary media culture—firmly established, the groundwork was laid for the Ground Zero mosque controversy.
The debate about the Park51 project began slowly. Few objections were raised when the property at 45 Park Place, which served as a Burlington Coat Factory store until 9/11, was sold to a real-estate group composed of Muslim investors in July 2009. Since the attack occurred before the store had opened for business, no one was hurt when the landing gear of one of the hijacked planes crashed through the roof and through two empty selling floors of the building. (Project backers who scoff at the notion that the building is part of the Ground Zero area have ignored the fact that the site was itself hit.) But the extensive damage has kept the place vacant ever since that day. Even in the months following the purchase of the site, when tensions rose over the ambitious plans of the developers to create a structure that might cast its shadow over the planned memorial where the World Trade Center had stood, few could be found to question the actual legal right of the property owners to do as they liked with the site. Nor were there any protests when modest Muslim prayer services began to be conducted there in late 2009.
But once the scale of the project became generally known, concern grew among the families of 9/11 victims and ordinary New Yorkers. Despite the mounting criticism of the scheme, approval was swiftly secured through the local community-planning board as well as the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, which removed the final legal obstacle on August 3, 2010. Since the putative Islamic center was led by a figure well known in the world of interfaith dialogue, the rationale for the expeditious treatment of the proposal was seen as support for the idea put forward by Imam Abdul Rauf that the new building would be a symbol of tolerance.
But for whom was tolerance being sought? Though this avowal was cheered by liberal clergy of many faiths as well as some political figures, the signal being sent was that what was needed at or around Ground Zero was not so much remembrance of the attack on New York by Islamists but a warning to Americans not to think ill of Muslims.
It is this subtext of the plan for the center and mosque that has grated on the nerves of many Americans. They see the Ground Zero environs as a place whose only proper purpose ought to be one of national mourning—and a return to business activity that would stand as a defiant rejoinder to the destructive efforts of al-Qaeda. Moreover, the way in which the feelings of most of the families of 9/11 victims were discarded without much ado also fueled the fires of protest about the plan. It was on this point that the Anti-Defamation League, an organization as besotted with the concept of interfaith dialogue as any and whose largely liberal inclinations on domestic politics are well known, chose to speak out in favor of moving the center to a less contentious site. But rather than listen to the concerns of the ADL and the many other critics of the project, the backers of the project raised the ante, labeling the group and those who agreed with it as misguided bigots. It was at this point that Mayor Bloomberg issued his grandiose endorsement of the Islamic center, eschewing compromise as appeasement of prejudice.
It is true that in the heat of the debate, extreme views and statements that could well be interpreted as demeaning to all of Islam were soon expressed by a few of the protesters. But the test of goodwill applied here was soon revealed to be the same as the one CAIR seeks to enforce on other topics: any criticism of the mosque plan was quickly labeled as prejudice. When Rauf’s previous statements rationalizing those who blamed American policy for 9/11 and a refusal to call Hamas a terrorist organization (always a pressure point for groups like CAIR because of its own history as a Hamas front) came to light, concerns that his moderation was more a matter of support for “progressive” politics than a genuine understanding of the threat from terrorism were similarly dismissed. Rather than engage with the other side, supporters of the project were unwilling to listen to or respect any opposing view.
Critics of the Islamic center were also accused of turning the topic into a political football, with Republicans Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin widely slammed for rabble-rousing on the issue. But political gamesmanship on this topic was hardly limited to the right, as President Obama sought to establish himself as a defender of religious liberty by using the mosque—though the president backed away from his stand less than a day after delivering his own broadside at a White House Ramadan dinner. But no one in the anti-center camp disputed mosque construction anywhere but in the direct flight path of 9/11. And most mosque opponents were careful to point out that they did not deny the “right” of the site’s owners to put up the mosque and center there, just the propriety of the move. If there was a political low point to the discussion, it was reached by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who threatened to investigate the funding of opponents of the center.
By reframing the Ground Zero controversy as one in which the reasonable concerns of the vast majority of Americans were portrayed as bigoted, the organizers of the project and the Muslim organizations had scored a stunning victory. It may well be true that Abdul Rauf and his backers see the world very differently from al-Qaeda’s 9/11 murderers and do not intend their building to serve, as some critics fear, as a victory monument for Islam like the mosques built on the ruins of Judaism’s Holy Temple in Jerusalem or the minarets that adorn what was once St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Istanbul. But their mosque will be another kind of monument, one that serves to institutionalize a very different way of thinking about September 11.
Unlike planned memorials at Ground Zero that should serve to perpetuate the memory of the thousands of victims of 9/11 who perished at the hands of Islamist fanatics determined to pursue their war against the West, Park51’s ultimate purpose will be to reinterpret that national tragedy in a way that will fundamentally distort that memory. The shift in the debate threatens to transmute 9/11 into a story of a strange one-off event that led to a mythical reign of domestic terror in which Muslims and their faith came under siege. It exempts every major branch of Islam from even the most remote connection to al-Qaeda and it casts the adherents of that faith as the ultimate sufferers of 9/11.
This account is an effort to redirect, redefine, and rewrite the unambiguous meaning of an unambiguous event. To achieve this aim, those who propound it are painting a vicious and libelous portrait of the United States and its citizens as hostile to and violent toward a minority population that was almost entirely left in peace and protected from any implication of involvement in the 9/11 crimes.
The conduct of the United States and its people toward Americans who profess Islam over the past nine years has been exemplary. The conduct of those who would build the mosque at Ground Zero, the Islamic organizations who have used the controversy to their advantage, and elitist opinion makers who have, in the course of this mess, suddenly discovered a passion for the free expression of religion and arrogantly set aside the sensibilities of those connected to the true victims of 9/11, has been the opposite of exemplary.
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The Mosque and the Mythical Backlash
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Terror is a choice.
Ari Fuld described himself on Twitter as a marketer and social media consultant “when not defending Israel by exposing the lies and strengthening the truth.” On Sunday, a Palestinian terrorist stabbed Fuld at a shopping mall in Gush Etzion, a settlement south of Jerusalem. The Queens-born father of four died from his wounds, but not before he chased down his assailant and neutralized the threat to other civilians. Fuld thus gave the full measure of devotion to the Jewish people he loved. He was 45.
The episode is a grim reminder of the wisdom and essential justice of the Trump administration’s tough stance on the Palestinians.
Start with the Taylor Force Act. The act, named for another U.S. citizen felled by Palestinian terror, stanched the flow of American taxpayer fund to the Palestinian Authority’s civilian programs. Though it is small consolation to Fuld’s family, Americans can breathe a sigh of relief that they are no longer underwriting the PA slush fund used to pay stipends to the family members of dead, imprisoned, or injured terrorists, like the one who murdered Ari Fuld.
No principle of justice or sound statesmanship requires Washington to spend $200 million—the amount of PA aid funding slashed by the Trump administration last month—on an agency that financially induces the Palestinian people to commit acts of terror. The PA’s terrorism-incentive budget—“pay-to-slay,” as Douglas Feith called it—ranges from $50 million to $350 million annually. Footing even a fraction of that bill is tantamount to the American government subsidizing terrorism against its citizens.
If we don’t pay the Palestinians, the main line of reasoning runs, frustration will lead them to commit still more and bloodier acts of terror. But U.S. assistance to the PA dates to the PA’s founding in the Oslo Accords, and Palestinian terrorists have shed American and Israeli blood through all the years since then. What does it say about Palestinian leaders that they would unleash more terror unless we cross their palms with silver?
President Trump likewise deserves praise for booting Palestinian diplomats from U.S. soil. This past weekend, the State Department revoked a visa for Husam Zomlot, the highest-ranking Palestinian official in Washington. The State Department cited the Palestinians’ years-long refusal to sit down for peace talks with Israel. The better reason for expelling them is that the label “envoy” sits uneasily next to the names of Palestinian officials, given the links between the Palestine Liberation Organization, President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, and various armed terrorist groups.
Fatah, for example, praised the Fuld murder. As the Jerusalem Post reported, the “al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of Fatah . . . welcomed the attack, stressing the necessity of resistance ‘against settlements, Judaization of the land, and occupation crimes.’” It is up to Palestinian leaders to decide whether they want to be terrorists or statesmen. Pretending that they can be both at once was the height of Western folly, as Ari Fuld no doubt recognized.
May his memory be a blessing.
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The end of the water's edge.
It was the blatant subversion of the president’s sole authority to conduct American foreign policy, and the political class received it with fury. It was called “mutinous,” and the conspirators were deemed “traitors” to the Republic. Those who thought “sedition” went too far were still incensed over the breach of protocol and the reckless way in which the president’s mandate was undermined. Yes, times have certainly changed since 2015, when a series of Republican senators signed a letter warning Iran’s theocratic government that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka, the Iran nuclear deal) was built on a foundation of sand.
The outrage that was heaped upon Senate Republicans for freelancing on foreign policy in the final years of Barack Obama’s administration has not been visited upon former Secretary of State John Kerry, though he arguably deserves it. In the publicity tour for his recently published memoir, Kerry confessed to conducting meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif “three or four times” as a private citizen. When asked by Fox News Channel’s Dana Perino if Kerry had advised his Iranian interlocutor to “wait out” the Trump administration to get a better set of terms from the president’s successor, Kerry did not deny the charge. “I think everybody in the world is sitting around talking about waiting out President Trump,” he said.
Think about that. This is a former secretary of state who all but confirmed that he is actively conducting what the Boston Globe described in May as “shadow diplomacy” designed to preserve not just the Iran deal but all the associated economic relief and security guarantees it provided Tehran. The abrogation of that deal has put new pressure on the Iranians to liberalize domestically, withdraw their support for terrorism, and abandon their provocative weapons development programs—pressures that the deal’s proponents once supported.
“We’ve got Iran on the ropes now,” said former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, “and a meeting between John Kerry and the Iranian foreign minister really sends a message to them that somebody in America who’s important may be trying to revive them and let them wait and be stronger against what the administration is trying to do.” This is absolutely correct because the threat Iran poses to American national security and geopolitical stability is not limited to its nuclear program. The Iranian threat will not be neutralized until it abandons its support for terror and the repression of its people, and that will not end until the Iranian regime is no more.
While Kerry’s decision to hold a variety of meetings with a representative of a nation hostile to U.S. interests is surely careless and unhelpful, it is not uncommon. During his 1984 campaign for the presidency, Jesse Jackson visited the Soviet Union and Cuba to raise his own public profile and lend credence to Democratic claims that Ronald Reagan’s confrontational foreign policy was unproductive. House Speaker Jim Wright’s trip to Nicaragua to meet with the Sandinista government was a direct repudiation of the Reagan administration’s support for the country’s anti-Communist rebels. In 2007, as Bashar al-Assad’s government was providing material support for the insurgency in Iraq, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sojourned to Damascus to shower the genocidal dictator in good publicity. “The road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Pelosi insisted. “Unfortunately,” replied George W. Bush’s national security council spokesman, “that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq.”
Honest observers must reluctantly conclude that the adage is wrong. American politics does not, in fact, stop at the water’s edge. It never has, and maybe it shouldn’t. Though it may be commonplace, American political actors who contradict the president in the conduct of their own foreign policy should be judged on the policies they are advocating. In the case of Iran, those who seek to convince the mullahs and their representatives that repressive theocracy and a terroristic foreign policy are dead-ends are advancing the interests not just of the United States but all mankind. Those who provide this hopelessly backward autocracy with the hope that America’s resolve is fleeting are, as John Kerry might say, on “the wrong side of history.”
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Michael Wolff is its Marquis de Sade. Released on January 5, 2018, Wolff’s Fire and Fury became a template for authors eager to satiate the growing demand for unverified stories of Trump at his worst. Wolff filled his pages with tales of the president’s ignorant rants, his raging emotions, his television addiction, his fast-food diet, his unfamiliarity with and contempt for Beltway conventions and manners. Wolff made shocking insinuations about Trump’s mental state, not to mention his relationship with UN ambassador Nikki Haley. Wolff’s Trump is nothing more than a knave, dunce, and commedia dell’arte villain. The hero of his saga is, bizarrely, Steve Bannon, who in Wolff’s telling recognized Trump’s inadequacies, manipulated him to advance a nationalist-populist agenda, and tried to block his worst impulses.
Wolff’s sources are anonymous. That did not slow down the press from calling his accusations “mind-blowing” (Mashable.com), “wild” (Variety), and “bizarre” (Entertainment Weekly). Unlike most pornographers, he had a lesson in mind. He wanted to demonstrate Trump’s unfitness for office. “The story that I’ve told seems to present this presidency in such a way that it says that he can’t do this job, the emperor has no clothes,” Wolff told the BBC. “And suddenly everywhere people are going, ‘Oh, my God, it’s true—he has no clothes.’ That’s the background to the perception and the understanding that will finally end this, that will end this presidency.”
Nothing excites the Resistance more than the prospect of Trump leaving office before the end of his term. Hence the most stirring examples of Resistance Porn take the president’s all-too-real weaknesses and eccentricities and imbue them with apocalyptic significance. In what would become the standard response to accusations of Trumpian perfidy, reviewers of Fire and Fury were less interested in the truth of Wolff’s assertions than in the fact that his argument confirmed their preexisting biases.
Saying he agreed with President Trump that the book is “fiction,” the Guardian’s critic didn’t “doubt its overall veracity.” It was, he said, “what Mailer and Capote once called a nonfiction novel.” Writing in the Atlantic, Adam Kirsch asked: “No wonder, then, Wolff has written a self-conscious, untrustworthy, postmodern White House book. How else, he might argue, can you write about a group as self-conscious, untrustworthy, and postmodern as this crew?” Complaining in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen said Wolff broke no new ground: “Everybody” knew that the “president of the United States is a deranged liar who surrounded himself with sycophants. He is also functionally illiterate and intellectually unsound.” Remind me never to get on Gessen’s bad side.
What Fire and Fury lacked in journalistic ethics, it made up in receipts. By the third week of its release, Wolff’s book had sold more than 1.7 million copies. His talent for spinning second- and third-hand accounts of the president’s oddity and depravity into bestselling prose was unmistakable. Imitators were sure to follow, especially after Wolff alienated himself from the mainstream media by defending his innuendos about Haley.
It was during the first week of September that Resistance Porn became a competitive industry. On the afternoon of September 4, the first tidbits from Bob Woodward’s Fear appeared in the Washington Post, along with a recording of an 11-minute phone call between Trump and the white knight of Watergate. The opposition began panting soon after. Woodward, who like Wolff relies on anonymous sources, “paints a harrowing portrait” of the Trump White House, reported the Post.
No one looks good in Woodward’s telling other than former economics adviser Gary Cohn and—again bizarrely—the former White House staff secretary who was forced to resign after his two ex-wives accused him of domestic violence. The depiction of chaos, backstabbing, and mutual contempt between the president and high-level advisers who don’t much care for either his agenda or his personality was not so different from Wolff’s. What gave it added heft was Woodward’s status, his inviolable reputation.
“Nothing in Bob Woodward’s sober and grainy new book…is especially surprising,” wrote Dwight Garner at the New York Times. That was the point. The audience for Wolff and Woodward does not want to be surprised. Fear is not a book that will change minds. Nor is it intended to be. “Bob Woodward’s peek behind the Trump curtain is 100 percent as terrifying as we feared,” read a CNN headline. “President Trump is unfit for office. Bob Woodward’s ‘Fear’ confirms it,” read an op-ed headline in the Post. “There’s Always a New Low for the Trump White House,” said the Atlantic. “Amazingly,” wrote Susan Glasser in the New Yorker, “it is no longer big news when the occupant of the Oval Office is shown to be callous, ignorant, nasty, and untruthful.” How could it be, when the press has emphasized nothing but these aspects of Trump for the last three years?
The popular fixation with Trump the man, and with the turbulence, mania, frenzy, confusion, silliness, and unpredictability that have surrounded him for decades, serves two functions. It inoculates the press from having to engage in serious research into the causes of Trump’s success in business, entertainment, and politics, and into the crises of borders, opioids, stagnation, and conformity of opinion that occasioned his rise. Resistance Porn also endows Trump’s critics, both external and internal, with world-historical importance. No longer are they merely journalists, wonks, pundits, and activists sniping at a most unlikely president. They are politically correct versions of Charles Martel, the last line of defense preventing Trump the barbarian from enacting the policies on which he campaigned and was elected.
How closely their sensational claims and inflated self-conceptions track with reality is largely beside the point. When the New York Times published the op-ed “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” by an anonymous “senior official” on September 5, few readers bothered to care that the piece contained no original material. The author turned policy disagreements over trade and national security into a psychiatric diagnosis. In what can only be described as a journalistic innovation, the author dispensed with middlemen such as Wolff and Woodward, providing the Times the longest background quote in American history. That the author’s identity remains a secret only adds to its prurient appeal.
“The bigger concern,” the author wrote, “is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us.” Speak for yourself, bud. What President Trump has done to the Resistance is driven it batty. He’s made an untold number of people willing to entertain conspiracy theories, and to believe rumor is fact, hyperbole is truth, self-interested portrayals are incontrovertible evidence, credulity is virtue, and betrayal is fidelity—so long as all of this is done to stop that man in the White House.
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Review of 'Stanley Kubrick' By Nathan Abrams
Except for Stanley Donen, every director I have worked with has been prone to the idea, first propounded in the 1950s by François Truffaut and his tendentious chums in Cahiers du Cinéma, that directors alone are authors, screenwriters merely contingent. In singular cases—Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Woody Allen, Kubrick himself—the claim can be valid, though all of them had recourse, regular or occasional, to helping hands to spice their confections.
Kubrick’s variety of topics, themes, and periods testifies both to his curiosity and to his determination to “make it new.” Because his grades were not high enough (except in physics), this son of a Bronx doctor could not get into colleges crammed with returning GIs. The nearest he came to higher education was when he slipped into accessible lectures at Columbia. He told me, when discussing the possibility of a movie about Julius Caesar, that the great classicist Moses Hadas made a particularly strong impression.
While others were studying for degrees, solitary Stanley was out shooting photographs (sometimes with a hidden camera) for Look magazine. As a movie director, he often insisted on take after take. This gave him choices of the kind available on the still photographer’s contact sheets. Only Peter Sellers and Jack Nicholson had the nerve, and irreplaceable talent, to tell him, ahead of shooting, that they could not do a particular scene more than two or three times. The energy to electrify “Mein Führer, I can walk” and “Here’s Johnny!” could not recur indefinitely. For everyone else, “Can you do it again?” was the exhausting demand, and it could come close to being sadistic.
The same method could be applied to writers. Kubrick might recognize what he wanted when it was served up to him, but he could never articulate, ahead of time, even roughly what it was. Picking and choosing was very much his style. Cogitation and opportunism went together: The story goes that he attached Strauss’s Blue Danube to the opening sequence of 2001 because it happened to be playing in the sound studio when he came to dub the music. Genius puts chance to work.
Until academics intruded lofty criteria into cinema/film, the better to dignify their speciality, Alfred Hitchcock’s attitude covered most cases: When Ingrid Bergman asked for her motivation in walking to the window, Hitch replied, fatly, “Your salary.” On another occasion, told that some scene was not plausible, Hitch said, “It’s only a movie.” He did not take himself seriously until the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd elected to make him iconic. At dinner, I once asked Marcello Mastroianni why he was so willing to play losers or clowns. Marcello said, “Beh, cinema non e gran’ cosa” (cinema is no big deal). Orson Welles called movie-making the ultimate model-train set.
That was then; now we have “film studies.” After they moved in, academics were determined that their subject be a very big deal indeed. Comedy became no laughing matter. In his monotonous new book, the film scholar Nathan Abrams would have it that Stanley Kubrick was, in essence, a “New York Jewish intellectual.” Abrams affects to unlock what Stanley was “really” dealing with, in all his movies, never mind their apparent diversity. It is declared to be, yes, Yiddishkeit, and in particular, the Holocaust. This ground has been tilled before by Geoffrey Cocks, when he argued that the room numbers in the empty Overlook Hotel in The Shining encrypted references to the Final Solution. Abrams would have it that even Barry Lyndon is really all about the outsider seeking, and failing, to make his awkward way in (Gentile) Society. On this reading, Ryan O’Neal is seen as Hannah Arendt’s pariah in 18th-century drag. The movie’s other characters are all engaged in the enjoyment of “goyim-naches,” an expression—like menschlichkayit—he repeats ad nauseam, lest we fail to get the stretched point.
Theory is all when it comes to the apotheosis of our Jew-ridden Übermensch. So what if, in order to make a topic his own, Kubrick found it useful to translate its logic into terms familiar to him from his New York youth? In Abrams’s scheme, other mundane biographical facts count for little. No mention is made of Stanley’s displeasure when his 14-year-old daughter took a fancy to O’Neal. The latter was punished, some sources say, by having Barry’s voiceover converted from first person so that Michael Hordern would displace the star as narrator. By lending dispassionate irony to the narrative, it proved a pettish fluke of genius.
While conning Abrams’s volume, I discovered, not greatly to my chagrin, that I am the sole villain of the piece. Abrams calls me “self-serving” and “unreliable” in my accounts of my working and personal relationship with Stanley. He insinuates that I had less to do with Eyes Wide Shut than I pretend and that Stanley regretted my involvement. It is hard for him to deny (but convenient to omit) that, after trying for some 30 years to get a succession of writers to “crack” how to do Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, Kubrick greeted my first draft with “I’m absolutely thrilled.” A source whose anonymity I respect told me that he had never seen Stanley so happy since the day he received his first royalty check (for $5 million) for 2001. No matter.
Were Abrams (the author also of a book as hostile to Commentary as this one is to me) able to put aside his waxed wrath, he might have quoted what I reported in my memoir Eyes Wide Open to support his Jewish-intellectual thesis. One day, Stanley asked me what a couple of hospital doctors, walking away with their backs to the camera, would be talking about. We were never going to hear or care what it was, but Stanley—at that early stage of development—said he wanted to know everything. I said, “Women, golf, the stock market, you know…”
“Couple of Gentiles, right?”
“That’s what you said you wanted them to be.”
“Those people, how do we ever know what they’re talking about when they’re alone together?”
“Come on, Stanley, haven’t you overheard them in trains and planes and places?”
Kubrick said, “Sure, but…they always know you’re there.”
If he was even halfway serious, Abrams’s banal thesis that, despite decades of living in England, Stanley never escaped the Old Country, might have been given some ballast.
Now, as for Stanley Kubrick’s being an “intellectual.” If this implies membership in some literary or quasi-philosophical elite, there’s a Jewish joke to dispense with it. It’s the one about the man who makes a fortune, buys himself a fancy yacht, and invites his mother to come and see it. He greets her on the gangway in full nautical rig. She says, “What’s with the gold braid already?”
“Mama, you have to realize, I’m a captain now.”
She says, “By you, you’re a captain, by me, you’re a captain, but by a captain, are you a captain?”
As New York intellectuals all used to know, Karl Popper’s definition of bad science, and bad faith, involves positing a theory and then selecting only whatever data help to furnish its validity. The honest scholar makes it a matter of principle to seek out elements that might render his thesis questionable.
Abrams seeks to enroll Lolita in his obsessive Jewish-intellectual scheme by referring to Peter Arno, a New Yorker cartoonist whom Kubrick photographed in 1949. The caption attached to Kubrick’s photograph in Look asserted that Arno liked to date “fresh, unspoiled girls,” and Abrams says this “hint[s] at Humbert Humbert in Lolita.” Ah, but Lolita was published, in Paris, in 1955, six years later. And how likely is it, in any case, that Kubrick wrote the caption?
The film of Lolita is unusual for its garrulity. Abrams’s insistence on the sinister Semitic aspect of both Clare Quilty and Humbert Humbert supposedly drawing Kubrick like moth to flame is a ridiculous camouflage of the commercial opportunism that led Stanley to seek to film the most notorious novel of the day, while fudging its scandalous eroticism.
That said, in my view, The Killing, Paths of Glory, Barry Lyndon, and Clockwork Orange were and are sans pareil. The great French poet Paul Valéry wrote of “the profundity of the surface” of a work of art. Add D.H. Lawrence’s “never trust the teller, trust the tale,” and you have two authoritative reasons for looking at or reading original works of art yourself and not relying on academic exegetes—especially when they write in the solemn, sometimes ungrammatical style of Professor Abrams, who takes time out to tell those of us at the back of his class that padre “is derived from the Latin pater.”
Abrams writes that I “claim” that I was told to exclude all overt reference to Jews in my Eyes Wide Shut screenplay, with the fatuous implication that I am lying. I am again accused of “claiming” to have given the name Ziegler to the character played by Sidney Pollack, because I once had a (quite famous) Hollywood agent called Evarts Ziegler. So I did. The principal reason for Abrams to doubt my veracity is that my having chosen the name renders irrelevant his subsequent fanciful digression on the deep, deep meanings of the name Ziegler in Jewish lore; hence he wishes to assign the naming to Kubrick. Pop goes another wished-for proof of Stanley’s deep and scholarly obsession with Yiddishkeit.
Abrams would be a more formidable enemy if he could turn a single witty phrase or even abstain from what Karl Kraus called mauscheln, the giveaway jargon of Jewish journalists straining to pass for sophisticates at home in Gentile circles. If you choose, you can apply, on line, for screenwriting lessons from Nathan Abrams, who does not have a single cinematic credit to his name. It would be cheaper, and wiser, to look again, and then again, at Kubrick’s masterpieces.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Is American opera in terminal condition?
At the Met, distinguished singers and conductors, mostly born and trained in Europe, appeared in theatrically conservative big-budget productions of the popular operas of the 19th century, with a sprinkling of pre-romantic and modern works thrown in to leaven the loaf. City Opera, by contrast, presented younger artists—many, like Beverly Sills, born in this country—in a wider-ranging, more adventurously staged repertoire that often included new operas, some of them written by American composers, to which the public was admitted at what were then called “popular prices.”
Between them, the companies represented a feast for culture-consuming New Yorkers, though complaints were already being heard that their new theaters were too big. Moreover, neither the Met nor City Opera was having any luck at commissioning memorable new operas and thereby expanding and refreshing the operatic repertoire, to which only a handful of significant new works—none of them, then or since, premiered by either company—had been added since World War I.
A half-century later, the feast has turned to famine. In 2011, New York City Opera left Lincoln Center, declaring bankruptcy. It closed its doors forever two years later. The Met has weathered a nearly uninterrupted string of crises that climaxed earlier this year with the firing of James Levine, the company’s once-celebrated music director emeritus. He was accused in 2017 of molesting teenage musicians and was dismissed from all of his conducting posts in New York and elsewhere. Today the Met is in dire financial straits that threaten its long-term survival.
And while newer opera companies in such other American cities as Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Santa Fe, and Seattle now offer alternative models of leadership, none has established itself as a potential successor either to the Met or the now-defunct NYCO.1
Is American opera as a whole in a terminal condition? Or are the collapse of the New York City Opera and the Met’s ongoing struggle to survive purely local matters of no relevance elsewhere? Heidi Waleson addresses these questions in Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America.2 Waleson draws on her experience as the opera critic of the Wall Street Journal to speculate on the prospects for an art form that has never quite managed to set down firm roots in American culture.
In this richly informative chronicle of NYCO’s decline and fall, Waleson persuasively argues that what happened to City Opera (and, by extension, the Met) could happen to other opera companies as well. The days in which an ambitious community sought successfully to elevate itself into the first rank of world cities by building and manning an opera house are long past, and Mad Scenes and Exit Arias helps us understand why.As Waleson reminds us, it was Fiorello LaGuardia, the New York mayor who played a central role in the creation of the NYCO, who dubbed the company “the people’s opera” when it was founded in 1943. According to LaGuardia, NYCO existed to perform popular operas at popular prices for a mass audience. In later years, it moved away from that goal, but the slogan stuck. Indeed, no opera company has ever formulated a clearer statement of its institutional mission.
Even after it moved to Lincoln Center in 1966, NYCO had an equally coherent and similarly appealing purpose: It was where you went to see the opera stars of tomorrow, foremost among them Sills and Plácido Domingo, in inexpensively but imaginatively staged productions of the classics. The company went out of its way to present modern operas, too, but it never did so at the expense of its central repertoire—and tickets to its performances cost half of what the Met charged. Well into the 21st century, City Opera stuck more or less closely to its redefined mission. Under Paul Kellogg, the general and artistic director from 1996 to 2007, it did so with consistent artistic success. But revenues declined throughout the latter part of Kellogg’s tenure, in part because younger New Yorkers were unwilling to become subscribers.
In those days, the Metropolitan Opera, NYCO’s next-door neighbor, was still one of the world’s most conservative opera houses. That changed when Peter Gelb became its general manager in 2006. Gelb was resolved to modernize the Met’s productions and, to a lesser extent, its repertoire, and he simultaneously sought to heighten its national profile by digitally simulcasting live performances into movie theaters throughout America.
Kellogg was frustrated by the chronic acoustic inadequacies of the New York State Theater and sought in vain to move City Opera to a three-theater complex that was to be built (but never was) on the World Trade Center site. He retired soon after Gelb came to the Met. Kellogg was succeeded by Gérard Mortier, a European impresario who was accustomed to working in state-subsidized theaters. Mortier made a pair of fateful decisions. First, he canceled City Opera’s entire 2008–2009 season while the interior of the State Theater underwent much-needed renovations. Then he announced a follow-up season of 20th-century operas that lacked audience appeal.
That follow-up season never happened, because Mortier resigned in 2008 and fled New York. He was replaced by George Steel, who had previously served for just three months as general manager of the Dallas Opera. Under Steel, NYCO slashed its schedule to ribbons in a futile attempt to get back on its financial feet after Mortier’s financially ruinous year-long hiatus. Then he mounted a series of productions of nonstandard repertory that received mixed reviews and flopped at the box office.
The combined effect of Gelb’s innovations and the inept leadership of Mortier and Steel all but obliterated City Opera’s reason for existing. Under Gelb, the Met’s repertory ranged from such warhorses as Rigoletto and Tosca to 20th-century masterpieces like Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, and tickets could be bought for as little as $20. With the Met performing a more interesting repertoire under a wider range of directors, and in part at “people’s prices,” City Opera no longer did anything that the Met wasn’t already doing on a far larger and better-financed scale. What, then, was its mission now? The truth was that it had none, and when the company went under in 2013, few mourned its passing.
As it happened, Gelb’s own innovations were a mere artistic Band-aid, for he was unwilling or unable to trim the Met’s bloated budget to any meaningful extent. He made no serious attempt to cut the company’s labor costs until a budget crisis in 2014 forced him to confront its unions, which he did with limited success. In addition, his new productions of the standard-repertory operas on which the Met relied to draw and hold older subscribers were felt by many to be trashily trendy.
The Met had particular difficulty managing the reduced circumstances of the 21st century when it came to opera. Its 3,800-seat theater has an 80-foot-deep stage with a proscenium opening that measures 54 feet on each side. (Bayreuth, by contrast, seats 1,925, La Scala 2,030, and the Vienna State Opera 2,200.) As a result, it is all but impossible to mount low-to-medium-budget shows in the Metropolitan Opera House, even as the company finds it is no longer able to fill its increasingly empty house. Two decades ago, the Met earned 90 percent of its potential box-office revenue. That figure plummeted to 66 percent by 2015, forcing Gelb to raise ticket prices to an average of $158.50 per head. On Broadway, the average price of a ticket that season was $103.86.
Above all, Gelb was swimming against the cultural tide. Asked about the effects on audience development of the Met simulcasts, he admitted that three-quarters of the people who attended them were “over 65, and 30 percent of them are over 75.” As he explained: “Grand opera is in itself a kind of a dinosaur of an art form…. The question is not whether I think I’m doing a good job or not in trying to keep the [Metropolitan Opera] alive. It’s whether I’m doing a good job or not in the face of a cultural and social rejection of opera as an art form. And what I’m doing is fighting an uphill battle to try and maintain an audience in a very difficult time.”
Was that statement buck-passing defeatism, or a fair appraisal of the state of American opera? Other opera executives distanced themselves from Gelb’s remarks, and it was true—and still is—that smaller American companies have done a somewhat better job of attracting younger audiences than the top-heavy Met. But according to the National Endowment for the Arts, the percentage of U.S. adults who attend at least one operatic performance each year declined from 3.2 percent in 2002 to 2.1 percent in 2012. This problem, of course, is not limited to opera. As I wrote in these pages in 2010, the disappearance of secondary-school arts education and the rise of digital media may well be leading to “not merely a decline in public interest in the fine arts but the death of the live audience as a cultural phenomenon.”3D oes American opera have a future in an era of what Heidi Waleson succinctly describes as “flat ticket income and rising expenses”? In the last chapter of Mad Scenes and Exit Arias, she chronicles the activities of a group of innovative smaller troupes that are “rethinking what an opera company is, what it does, and who it serves.” Yet in the same breath, she acknowledges the possibility that “filling a giant theater for multiple productions of grand operas [is] no longer an achievable goal.”
If that is so, then it may be worth asking a different question: Did American opera ever have a past? It is true that opera in America has had a great and glorious history, but virtually the whole of that history consisted of American productions of 18th- and 19th-century European operas. By contrast, no opera by an American classical composer has ever entered the international major-house repertoire. Indeed, while new American operas are still commissioned and premiered at an impressive rate, few things are so rare as a second production of any of these works.
While a handful continue to be performed—John Adams’s Nixon in China (1987), André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1995), Mark Adamo’s Little Women (1998), and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (2000)—their success is a tribute to the familiarity of their subject matter and source material, not their musico-theatrical quality. As for the rest, the hard but inescapable truth is that with the exception of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), virtually all large-scale American operas have been purpose-written novelties that were shelved and forgotten immediately after their premieres.
The success of Porgy and Bess, which received its premiere not in an opera house but on Broadway, reminds us that American musical comedy, unlike American opera, is deeply rooted in our national culture, in much the same way that grand opera is no less deeply rooted in the national cultures of Germany and Italy, where it is still genuinely popular (if less so today than a half-century ago). By comparison with Porgy, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, or My Fair Lady, American opera as a homegrown form simply does not exist: It is merely an obscure offshoot of its European counterpart. Aaron Copland, America’s greatest composer, was not really joking when he wittily described opera as “la forme fatale,” and his own failed attempts to compose an audience-friendly opera that would be as successful as his folk-flavored ballet scores say much about the difficulties facing any composer who seeks to follow in his footsteps.
It is not that grand opera is incapable of appealing to American theatergoers. Even now, there are many Americans who love it passionately, just as there are regional companies such as Chicago’s Lyric Opera and San Francisco Opera that have avoided making the mistakes that closed City Opera’s doors. Yet the crises from which the Metropolitan Opera has so far failed to extricate itself suggest that in the absence of the generous state subsidies that keep European opera houses in business, large-house grand opera in America may simply be too expensive to thrive—or, ultimately, to survive. At its best, no art form is more thrilling or seductive. But none is at greater risk of following the dinosaurs down the cold road to extinction.
1 The “New York City Opera” founded in 2016 that now mounts operas in various New York theaters on an ad hoc basis is a brand-new enterprise that has no connection with its predecessor.
2 Metropolitan Books, 304 pages